"You're an ignorant girlchild," says Maul. "This I cannot fault you for. A creature in a cage shall never know it's true potential."
This is the worst accusation of all. She bristles, and a snide smile opens on her face like a scar. "I killed my master, Maul."
"Your first one," he points out, jerking the hilt of his saber in her direction. "He was weak and pathetic. You won't truly be proven strong until it's a Sith Lord beneath your blade."
"Am I getting a blade?" She demands, stalking him in turn. Qi'ra doesn't like to be inspected from all sides like livestock; she'd rather hunt him in turn. He doesn't seem to mind. They go in slow circles, him with his rippling lightsaber and her with her hands.
Maul is red and black and he runs hot. He's always angry. It's his weakness. Stubborn, obstinate men often win, but they always die sadly. She'll make sure of it.
He chuffs like an animal. Rears his head a little, like it's preposterous. Beneath them, the stones in the cave are slick and black. In her periphery, it seems to go on forever. The click of their boots echoes back from minutes ago. Time, here, is depthless.
"You'll get one when you earn it."
"What must I do to earn it?"
It's a reasonable question, or at least she thinks so. That is, until he's a blur of red and he's at her side so fast she can't think straight, and there's a knife- a metal one- pressed to a notch in her spine. Qi'ra stands utterly still.
"Take your fear and sharpen it into your weapon. No one will best you again."
The knife slips from her spine and into her palm. Her mentor moves to stand before her; he leans in, in, closer than comfort, and she can smell his stinking breath and see the shine of evil in those bright gold eyes of his. All he does is smile. She presses her knife to his throat.
She doesn't cut.
Something unimaginably vast has shifted within her. The world tilts on its axis and she thinks, just for a second, that she will get very good at killing her masters.
Qi'ra returns to the yacht two nights later. The sky is inky black and she is half dead. It's all fair and well, though, because she has a weapon. She slams the button to lower the entrance ramp and, while she waits, looks at her hands.
Her nails are ragged. There's blood caked in the beds and beneath what's left of the jagged, broken claws that'd once been a nice manicure. Dryden Vos liked his girls looking clean. Neat. She smiles at the mess. She didn't know Zabraks bled crimson, too.
The air is hazy here, dense with fog. In the distance, creatures scream. The sky turns from black to purple as the sun rises. The ramp lowers all the way, with a satisfying click .
Margo, the Imroosian in charge of Crimson Dawn's guest services, stands at the door with her hands folded primly at her waist. In the moonlight, the cracked expanse of her white skin looks like marble. "My Lord," she says.
"Qi'ra," she replies, smearing blood on the doorway as she pushes past. "My name is Qi'ra."
Margo gestures to the nearest droid, who hurries to clean the spot before it stains. Qi'ra halts. She yanks off her boots and throws them across the room. They strike the clean, white floors with a dull thud. Her jacket is next. The fur collar is matted and torn.
"Shall I have your jacket cleaned and tailored?" asks Margo, crossing over and ducking to tenderly brush a thumb over the leather.
"It's not mine anymore."
"I'll clean it, then." Margo picks it up. "I always wanted a fur jacket."
She moves across the room and pushes the door open with her back; it slides away, the dining room so bright that it blinds her momentarily. Awash with fluorescent white, Qi'ra snaps her fingers at the droid in the corner. "Dim these lights and make us a meal."
"Us?" asks the Droid, beeping with stress. "How many are we to serve?"
"Two," she replies.
"Is- is he coming?"
She glances back at Margo, who has such a good Sabacc face that her distress isn't visible at all. Her voice betrays her. Employees were meant to be silent, of course, so she's never honed that skill. She'll learn it soon. Qi'ra will make sure of it.
It takes three solid minutes of convincing for Margo to buckle and bow to the offer.
They sit at opposite ends of the smooth red table, each with their hands in their laps and their backs straight. They've done this before. Only, before, they were pretty fixtures. Now they must find a way to exist without feeling burdensome and intrusive.
"I--" starts Qi'ra, her voice hoarse.
They both bite their tongues. They make lingering eye contact. Margo has gold eyes, too, but they aren't frightening like Maul's. They're not the kind of eyes you're afraid to see glinting in the dark. In fact, she can't tear her eyes away.
"I'm getting your chip out tomorrow," says Qi'ra. "Or sooner, if we can find the tools for it ourselves."
Margo self-consciously strokes the line in her neck where the tracking chip is embedded. "A replacement?"
"No," says Qi'ra, leaning back so the droid can place her plates in front of her. "No more."
Her hunger is lascivious and indulgent. The conversation quickly goes silent; she gives Margo whatever time she needs to process this new information and, meanwhile, gorges herself. All in Crimson Dawn were fed sufficiently- she in fact quite well, considering her rank, but even then there was no choice in the matter. She ate expensive delicacies that she couldn't stomach all the time. Sometimes it seemed like Vos intentionally chose the ones that made her sick. She doesn't like to think about it.
The droids bring them a smorgasbord of delicacies. They're small portions, but dozens upon dozens of plates. They stretch between her and Margo like an ocean of white ceramic, dashed with sauces, stinking of sugar and acid and fat. The soup bowl in her left hand gushes hot steam; the hunk of bantha meat she clutches in the other is drenched in sauce, gone tender beneath her teeth, savory and dense and with an edge of spice to it.
Margo takes advantage of the opportunity. She seems to prefer the sweet things. She piles her plate high with fragile little white cakes; decadent crescents of frosting and thick gobs of honey crowd the centerpiece, which is an intricate sculpture of spun sugar. Little beads of moisture sparkle in the light. They smear across her lips and her hands, the earthen, white skin of which is so cracked it almost appears scaly.
They don't talk at all. They just eat. Time goes by and, only once fully sated, they both stand, clean up, and begin to search the First Light for the tools necessary to remove their chips.
Her neck is sore. It's been two weeks and it should have passed, but the pain persists. Qi'ra tries to heed her mentor's guidance, which is that she should hone her pain, like her fear, and become stronger for it.
It's hard to become strong when you can't turn your head all the way to the right.
"You're distracted," says Maul, his humming red lightsaber stopping only the barest inch from her face. It hovers there, rippling and spitting sparks that singe the little hairs on her face. Qi'ra doesn't budge.
"My wound hinders my movement."
"Let it remind you where you come from. Never look back."
"That's very poetic." She huffs, brushing a lock of her hair from her face. "But poems won't do me any good when my body works against me."
Maul looks furious. It's a childish anger, she can see that now. He deactivates his lightsaber; it dribbles and hisses as it slots back into the hilt. He bangs that metal hilt against the durasteel expanse of his thigh. "I couldn't imagine how that might feel."
She almost feels bad for him. "Severed at the waist- that must've stung."
That metal knee digs into her thigh; he crowds her against the wall and doesn't even bother to ignite his blade again. "You'll learn soon not to make any presumptions about me. We are not friends, child. We are not allies. You are here to learn from me. What are you here to learn?"
"How to kill a Sith," she recites, "and to make him suffer."
"That's right." He abruptly backs away, turning like he can't bear to look at her any longer. "Assume first form."
She flicks the switches on her dual electro-swords and assumes first form.
"Please," says Qi'ra. "I won't ask any more of you."
"My Lord, you may ask as much of me as you'd like." Margo folds her hands in her lap. She tilts her head.
"Call me Qi'ra."
"Ask more of me."
"First, call me Qi'ra."
Margo scoots a little bit closer. This is the only room on the yacht that isn't clinical and white; Margo's private quarters, draped with deep green and royal blue rugs, the ceiling dangling with swathes of luxurious fabric and jingling bells. The very air seems to twinkle.
"Qi'ra," she says, and puts a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Ask more of me."
"I'll only ask you if you know that you can say no."
She tilts her head again. Then she twists her leg underneath the chair and, by the tip of her pointed shoe, drags out a duffel bag. "I had plans to leave. Then it was you that came back. I can say no; I won't."
"Rub my neck," says Qi'ra, begs Qi'ra, "and my shoulders. It hurts. I can't turn my head."
"Of course, Qi'ra." Then Margo stands; she resists the urge to lean forward, subconsciously chasing her hands. Her cabinets are full of junk, but she seems to know her way intuitively around the mess, procuring a bottle of bacta.
It pops open and suddenly the entire room smells sugar-sweet. It's cloying; she inhales deeply and shuts her eyes, turning so her back is to the other woman.
The couch dips behind her. Rough, cracked hands gently lift her shirt from her shoulders and unclasp her bra. She knows there's a great black bruise across her back, a dozen more on her shoulders, her forearms. She is painted with nicks and burns. Training is exhilarating. It is agony. Qi'ra sits up straighter.
She discovers that Margo runs cold. She tells her stories as she rubs and presses the muscles of Qi'ra's neck and shoulder into submission. Her touch is firm and unrelenting. She was born on a volcanic planet, where the earth was molten and stank of hell. Margo crawled out of that pit as soon as she saw an opportunity. It was the worst decision of her life, and it was also the best.
When her arms wrap around her from behind, Qi'ra just hums. Margo stretches across her bare back, her skin cool and soothing against Qi'ra's sore spots. She rests her head on the bulb of her shoulder.
Qi'ra rolls it, testing the muscle. It's in motion again. This time, she can turn her head effortlessly, just far enough to lean in and kiss her.
Maul owns a lot of trinkets for a man who lives in a cave.
He sits in his circle of flickering, wilted candles. Puddles of melted wax cake the floor. The walls are scrawled with mad ravings, runes, and other such gibberish. There's some poetry among it, though from what she's skimmed it's just hateful enough that there's no use in truly reading it. Qi'ra passes by all the frantic scrawlings and kneels before him.
"Who is it that you want me to kill?"
Maul doesn't open his eyes. He seems calm, collected. Strangely centered in his meditation. His serenity makes her feel nauseous and nervous, like she's being lied to. Qi'ra presses further. "Give me a name."
"A Sith lord," he says placatingly.
It doesn't work. She just seethes. "Which?"
"It's not like there are a great many to choose from." He chuffs and clenches his hands on his prosthetic knees.
"I don't know any."
His voice is rough and warbled, like a rope rattling through a pulley. "You're wasting precious time."
"I have plenty of it to waste."
Maul opens one eye just to cast her a belittling look. It's withering. She folds her legs underneath her and stares calmly back. He squeezes it shut again and says "I wouldn't be so confident."
"I don't need confidence. I have you."
His hands curl on his knees. It's not pain that she feels, per se, but she can feel the Force- she knows what that feels like now- curl threateningly about her ribcage, like a warning. It's not tight enough to restrict her breathing. She shuts her eyes too and lets herself be plunged into blackness.
"You do not have me." He almost growls.
Qi'ra doesn't like meditation. It doesn't do for her what it seems to do for her mentor, but still, it allows her to ease her breath just enough that the grip of the Force doesn't feel like a cage, anymore, just a gentle pressure. He eases off.
"Why should I learn this?"
"The Sith stole me from my mother's arms, killed my brother, and considered me a weapon to be discarded once I was no longer useful. They made me suffer. They'll do the same to you."
"I won't let anyone make me suffer again."
They sit there together for hours, eyes shut, across from one another. The cave envelops her, slow and suffocating as molasses. He tells her all the secrets of the Sith he has faced, and the Jedi, too; of Masters and apprentices who cut one another down, who cut each other apart. Men who divided the galaxy. It is their fault that Corellia was strewn into such disarray; it is their fault that she had a Mistress, then a Master. His rage becomes hers.
Margo tells her later that she was there for three days. Qi'ra's voice is hoarse with disuse when she returns. Her soul is raw with anger.
Qi'ra hefts her electro-sabers, stepping back. Maul circles her. His lightsaber buzzes through the air like a saw; it dashes over her head and trims the edges of her hair as she ducks.
Something's wrong. She bends at the waist, clutching her hand- her blades clatter to the floor. The air smells like burning meat. She looks down, blinking through the tears. Maul severed Qi'ra's little finger from her hand.
It lies on the floor before her. Her hand drips blood upon it. He crouches to pick it up, unflinching.
"All power requires sacrifice," he says. For a second Qi'ra thinks he's going to keep it and, as he said, sacrifice it. Perhaps he'll display it among the other bizarre trinkets in his dark hovel.
But he doesn't. He picks her finger up off the smooth black floor and turns it; inspects it; then summons a bottle of bacta and a spool of medical tape from who-knows-where, catching it midair with his free hand. Then he sits her down on the floor and he smears her stump with the sickly sweet liquid. The same is done to her twitching, severed finger. The two ends meet and are wrapped tightly in place, forced back into place.
She bites her lip, trying not to sob. "Did- did you have to do it manually?"
"What do you mean?"
"I know that most Force users are all gone," she hisses after the last word, tactfully sidestepping the word Jedi . "But...but.. I heard stories as a child, just like anyone did. That- that they could touch objects and hear their stories, or heal wounds with their minds."
She wiggles the stump of her finger; the pain is so fierce it nearly numbs it.
He looks away. "Such abilities are not available to me."
He said once he would show her how to use true power. That she'd attain knowledge of the unimaginable. He just admitted to one skill he could not teach.
Her neck gets better. She can turn it, now, and Margo has recovered too. They have helped one another along the way.
In the weeks following, her finger heals too. He checks her progress until she can move it again. She'll never recover feeling in it, but bending it is enough.
Maul actually smiles when she does it the first time.
"What are you?"
Qi'ra levels him with a serious look. She'll accept no lies or platitudes.
They are outside the cave, this time. The sun is high in the sky, casting pink light across the field. She is an adept at Teräs Käsi now- the style of fighting he taught her, created to combat Force users- and in her mind, she has earned an honest answer.
Maul turns his face away. "We have been over this."
A lock of hair is plastered to Qi'ra's brow with sweat, and her arms ache. Her shoulder is nearly black with bruises. She fell from a considerable height yesterday. He didn't use the Force to stop her colliding with the stones below. I have earned honesty, she thinks to herself, and if he won't give it to me willingly I shall cut it from him.
A whisp of steam pours from his caf. He clutches it in one hand, and he always drinks it like he hates it, or like it's something foreign and strange. He never takes it if she offers it to him like a host to a guest; he only drinks if she leaves it somewhere unattended, like she's offering tribute to a god.
"What are you, Maul."
The unspoken question dangles in the air. Are you a Sith ?
He grinds his jaw and looks at her. "I was once a Sith. An apprentice. Then, a Master."
It does not shock her. Qi'ra crosses her arms. She smiles at him. "And did you kill him?"
He blinks. "What?"
"Did you kill the Sith?"
He gnashes his teeth until a smile comes out. It looks strange and unnatural on his face, but dazzling, almost conspiratorial. He slings the grin her way and covers his mouth like he's ashamed of it. "I did."
Qi'ra realizes, dimly, that she is not the only one who killed her master. They share this one small thing between them. Though he holds the end of her leash, he knows she could kill him if she wanted to. That she might, any day now. He doesn't trust anyone but he does trust in her rage.
"Drink your caf," she says, nudging his arm affectionately. "We can train more soon."
"Hm," he chuckles and sips idly, grimacing at the taste.
Margo sits across from hers and mends the leather jacket that Qi'ra discarded. The fur is still matted around the collar; she moves with expert motions, though, like fixing things is effortless, so Qi'ra trusts it'll be good as new soon enough.
It is propped on her knee. She balances the needle between her teeth and focuses intently on her work. Qi'ra sits across from her, silently reassembling her left electro-blade.
"Where will we go after this?"
Qi'ra looks up in surprise. Margo sits, poised, with the needle between her forefingers now, looking at her.
"When your training is done."
"I will stay until I am a master of Teräs Käsi."
Margo laughs at her. Her teeth are a flash of blinding white, both canines sharp as anything. She knows intimately the feel of them. Qi'ra shifts, restless.
"You are already a master, Qi'ra."
She shakes her head. There is still more she has to learn, if she wants to sit at the helm of Crimson Dawn. There's still so much she doesn't know. So much she's afraid of.
"I can't leave until he lets me go," she murmurs.
Margo stops. Mid-motion she just freezes, needle in the air, expression flat and cold and earnest.
"You should kill him."
They stare at one another. Unthinking, Margo rests one hand stop her other, stabbing herself lightly with the needle. She drags her hand back. A bulb of orange blood bursts from her knuckle. She wipes it away without blinking and repeats; "You should kill him."
"I won't," says Qi'ra. "He's not my master."
Maul has had a particular glint in his eye as of late. She thinks he wants to die.
Their blades clash. The electricity hums between them, making her hair frizzy at the ends, ejecting sparks that singe her skin and make her hiss, pressing harder into it.
"You're ready," he grits out, and his teeth are nearly black but she still sees when they're revealed between a smile. It's oddly proud. He looks- proud. He yanks his blade away and leaps back. She follows at his heels, a master now, effortlessly spinning under the swing of his lightsaber and coming up behind him, slamming the butt of her blade's hilt into a spot between his shoulder blades.
He crumples and falls to his knees.
She circles him. The cave is quiet and the ground is slick. The silence is fat with tension and he looks at her, quietly smoldering in his pride and his anger and his bitterness.
Qi'ra has learned so much from him. Still, he owns her, in a way, he is her mentor, he is the host of all her knowledge, her superior. In his empty hands he clutches her leash, and for that she hates him.
"Are you going to kill me?" he asks, his voice gravelly and strained.
She comes closer. Her blades scissor his throat, not yet cutting but very close. He's been severed in half before once and lived. If Qi'ra were to kill him, she'd have to do more than slice his head from his neck, she thinks.
The blades hum. His breathing is labored.
"I'm going to go far away from here," she says. "I'm going to leave with Margo and with the First Light. I'm going to kill a Sith lord and I will spread the Crimson across the stars."
Maul's chest heaves. He stares intently at her.
"I'm going to go far away from here and you will not follow."
"Kill me," he demands, harsher now, and inches his throat closer to the crossed blades.
She leans in, careful not to let the electric blades touch his skin. Qi'ra won't take orders from him. She won't enact violence at his behest, not even if that violence would silence him once and for all.
She is black and blue with bruises and burns when she boards the white expanse of the First Light.
Margo levels her with a serious look. She's wearing the coat, now, good as new, shiny and fresh, and she crosses the distance between them to grasp her hands.
"Where are we going to go?"
Qi'ra smiles. "We're going to go far away from here," she murmurs, cupping her pale face in her hands. "And then we're going to live."